On a recent field visit to northwest Bangladesh, I spent a day and a night in the village of Astapukur, where the only structure not made of bamboo or dried mud is a small church — a one-room, tin-roofed, brick-and-plaster building with metal shutters. The church has no pews; the congregants sit on large, plain rugs covering the concrete floor. In front is an altar, to one side of which is a low table with a wooden cross.
I had to walk the last half-mile of my journey to Astapukur, because the monsoon rains had left a foot of mud on the dirt road, making it impassable by vehicle. Waiting to greet me was Manuel Soren, the church’s catechist, or lay minister, who had been a student in my Healing Ministry class at St. Andrew’s Theological College in Dhaka. I made this trip especially to support and encourage Manuel in his ministry.
After having tea with Manuel and Amin Kisku, a member of Astapukur’s parish committee, or session, the three of us went to visit people in the village who were sick.
We first visited a young man named Hemonto, who was sitting out under a tree to allow fresh air to soothe a large burn under his right arm. We listened to him tell how the crowded, three-wheeled taxi he was riding into town had overturned and trapped him, and then how scalding hot water from the engine’s radiator had spilled onto him. He had been frightened for his life.
By the time he finished telling his story, others had gathered around, and several of us placed our hands on him while Manuel prayed for his healing.
From there we walked to the home of Monika, an 11-year-old with severe anemia. She was not only weak but also very short for her age — a sign that she had probably been anemic for a long time. She wouldn’t say much, and when I asked her how she was feeling, her eyes filled with tears.
I assured her of Christ’s presence there with her, and I prayed for her. I also made arrangements for her to be seen at Christian Mission Hospital in Rajshahi, about 30 miles away.
From Monika’s house we followed a narrow path to the home of Basonti, who is expecting a baby in November. She told us, sadly, that she had already lost two children, each having died soon after being born at home. This time she is getting antenatal check-ups and will go to the hospital for the delivery. She asked us to pray for her and the child within her.
We walked further and visited several others, some lying on mats, some on cots of woven rope, and we stopped a couple of times to sit with folks in front of their homes. Most of the men and women in Astapukur work as daily laborers in rice fields.
That evening about 30 people gathered in the church for worship, and just before the opening devotional song Manuel asked me to say a few words after the scripture reading. He had chosen the gospel story about the paralytic brought by friends and lowered through the roof to Jesus, who, seeing their faith, healed the man.
So I spoke about how the church, strengthened by faith, can help bring the sick to Christ, the Healer. The church’s ministry of healing requires that we visit the sick, listen to their worries and hopes, care for them, help them gain access to the treatment they need, and pray for them, all the while opening our hearts to their suffering. Through these very acts of compassion, the presence of Christ, the Healer, will be made known.
After a supper of rice and chicken curry at Manuel’s home, I walked alone back to the church, which was to be my bedroom that night. The congregation had placed a wooden cot under one of the open windows and fixed it up with a pillow and a blanket for padding.
In the presence of the altar and the wooden cross, I lay in the dark and listened to the monsoon rain. I thought about my friend Manuel, about his ministry to people both within and beyond his congregation, and about the faith he and his parishioners share in Jesus Christ. I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of their lives and to encourage them in their ministry to those in their community who are sick and suffering.
Since 1989, Les and Cindy Morgan have been serving as PC(USA) missionaries in Bangladesh, home to the fourth largest Muslim population in the world. In 1992 they helped the PC(USA) establish a formal partnership with the Church of Bangladesh (CoB), a denomination of over 19,000 members in 94 congregations, and since then have nurtured and helped carry out that church’s health ministries.